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A Toast to Ed McNally

Last week Big Rock announced (and reported on Canadian Beer News over the weekend) that Ed McNally has stepped down as CEO of the company he founded in 1985. I suspect that “stepping  down” in this case is a euphemism for “retiring”, as Mr. McNally is getting up in years.

I wanted to briefly comment on this news, as I believe it is significant. I think this week we should all raise a pint glass to Mr. McNally, for beer drinkers in western Canada owe him a great debt. He was the prairies first craft brewing pioneer, following quickly after Granville Island. And there can be no denying that he turned the Alberta beer world upside down. Not only was his beer not a lager, it was brown, for goodness sakes! What kind of craziness was that.

It is easy for us today, awash in great local craft beer and among the best import selection anywhere, to dismiss the profound significance of what McNally and Big Rock did in the 1980s. Sure, he got remarkably lucky with Calgary hosting the winter Olympics and the city witnessed a influx of tourists from much more beer-savvy locations and his beer being the only one that wasn’t yellow and boring. But isn’t luck part of business acumen, too?

In the past decade, Big Rock has allowed themselves to get passed by. They chose to focus on expanding their distribution across Canada (for example, I found it easier to get Big Rock in Halifax than many Quebec breweries), rather than staying on the cutting edge of craft brewing. As a result the (now not so) young upstarts surpassed Big Rock for quality and adventurousness. In the last year or two, Big Rock has been trying to recapture some of that playful experimentation that makes craft brewers great with their Brewmaster’s Choice line. The results, so far, have been quite mixed, demonstrating how much ground they have to make up on that front.

Even with their less-than-stellar track record in recent years, I still find that I can rely on Trad when attending venues with little else to offer. Hell, I live off the stuff during the Edmonton Folk Festival every year. So, it may be easy for us to point to Half Pints, Yukon, Alley Kat, Wild Rose, Paddock Wood and others and find Big Rock lacking. But, we must acknowledge they blazed the trail for the fine breweries that have come since..

The current reality should not cloud us from recognizing McNally’s beer achievements. Nor should his politics, if I am to be entirely honest with myself. McNally and I differ significantly politically – his being of the right-wing, anti-union type. I still believe that Big Rock’s lowest point was when it decided, at the height of the 1990s cutbacks, to brew a special beer for the Conservative Party convention called Kleineken.It felt quite insulting to me (and thousands of other Albertans) at the time.

But for this week I am prepared to put politics aside and give Ed McNally a richly deserved “cheers!”, as we honour a man who helped shape Alberta’s beer scene. However, next week it is back to chastising him for his most unpalatable politics – I have a reputation to uphold, after all.

13 comments to A Toast to Ed McNally

  • Yup, can’t dispute what they did in their early years, which is when Ed was most involved to my knowledge. Just disappointing what has happened over the last 10 years or so, they certainly did not keep pace with craft trends, and in many ways regressed back to a more traditional “macro” brewer.

  • Brady

    His namesake Irish Red Ale is still quite all right by me, politics, schmolitics…

  • Darrell

    Yes I have to raise a pint to Ed alright. There was many a half-price Trad or two(…ok, occasionally three – they Were 1/2 price;-))that went down quite nicely after a night in the little kitchen of The Yardbird. Looking back I can say that it was those that pretty much started me on the road to better beer. Trad, Warthog & Magpie are still fairly reliable standbys, & I enjoyed a couple compostable cups of Big Rock’s IPA with veggie pakoras in The Fringe beer tent about seven months ago.

  • Lisa

    Yep, I’ve said several times that I wouldn’t be the beer ‘connoisseur’ I am today without Big Rock. I wax nostalgic to the days when Dewey’s had all their beers tap, even the seasonals. Winter Porter was one of my favourite beers and I was disappointed they stopped carrying it.

  • Len

    I’ve always been a big fan of Big Rock. Like you say, they blazed the trail and there’s still nothing like a good McNally’s. I don’t know why his politics would be at all offensive. I agree him. There are other “right wing anti-union” types in Alberta believe it or not 🙂

    Cheers to Ed! And his politics!

    • beerguy

      Len, indeed there are many right-wing anti-union types in Alberta. I just ain’t one of them. I respect others’ views, but while I will allow for some separation of beer and politics (a la church and state), there is only so far I will go. Mr. McNally has offended my politics many times. So I feel, in the interests of integrity, that I must mention it. I am not asking anyone to convert their personal views as a result. It is simply a matter of being true to myself. Honouring McNally is hard for me politically, but I do so because I respect what he has done for beer. So, forgive me my passing shot about his politics. It helps keep me honest.

      Thanks for commenting.


  • Politics aside for those who know Ed, he is pretty cool. My friend at Laguntias worked for Ed 18 years ago, If that is not cool please Jason tell me what is?

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